Stroke patients to be benefited with robotic walker

Researchers
have created a novel robot that could help patients who have suffered a stroke
or spinal injury walk again while reducing the workload of physiotherapists. Survivors
of stroke or other neurological conditions such as spinal cord injuries,
traumatic brain injuries and Parkinson’s disease often struggle with mobility.
To regain their motor functions, these patients are required to undergo
physical therapy sessions. A team of researchers from the National University
of Singapore’s (NUS) Faculty of Engineering has invented a novel robotic walker
that helps patients carry out therapy sessions to regain their leg movements
and natural gait. The system also increases productivity of physiotherapists
and improves the quality of rehabilitation sessions.

Designed
by a team of researchers led by Yu Haoyong, the robotic walker is capable of
supporting a patient’s weight while providing the right amount of force at the
pelvis of the patient to help the patient walk with a natural gait. In
addition, quantitative data can be collected during the therapy sessions so
that doctors and physiotherapists can monitor the progress of the patient’s
rehabilitation. The robotic walker comprises six modules: an omni-directional
mobile platform; an active body weight support unit; a pelvic and trunk motion
support unit; a suite of body sensors; a function al electrical stimulation
unit; and an intuitive user control interface.

The
suite of body sensors measures the gait of the patient so that the walker can
provide the right amount of support to help the patient walk with a natural
gait. The electrical stimulation unit can deliver targeted electrical current
to stimulate the correct muscle at the correct timing to facilitate joint
movement. The walker can also provide assistive force, resistive force, and
disturbance force depending on the training requirements set by the therapists.
In this way, patients can go through different training schemes that are often
difficult to achieve manually. The patient interacts with the walker through a
force sensor which detects the user intent. The intelligent control system uses
this information as well as the gait information provided by the body sensors
to control the movement of the walker. Another unique feature of this walker is
that it allows the patient to practice gait movements by walking over ground
instead of on a treadmill. Such features enable the gait training to be
conducted in a natural and intuitive way for the patients.

“This
robotic walker allows patients to practice their gait movements continuously to
optimize their therapy. When patients repeat the movements in a natural
setting, the routine can be imprinted into their brains which gradually learn
to correct from the damage resulting from their medical conditions,” explained
Yu. In addition, the robotic walker is capable of collecting data on the gait
kinematics and muscle activation pattern of the patient. Such information is
useful for doctors and therapists to monitor the progress of the patients’
recovery. Besides improving the quality of rehabilitation, the walker will also
relieve physiotherapists from the physical strain of assisting patients with
the exercises. Currently, gait training requires one or two physiotherapists to
support the patient’s body weight and trunk, and an additional physiotherapist
may be needed to move the paretic leg. Such therapy sessions are labour
intensive, and they are also ergonomically unfat vourable for the
physiotherapists as they often suffer from back injuries.

With
this walker, manual therapy can be taken over by the robotic system, while
physiotherapists can focus on providing better assessment and training guidance
for patients. The device all so reduces the number of physiotherapists needed
to conduct each session of rehabilitation, thereby increasing productivity and
reducing the cost of care.. “Our vision is for the robotic walker to be
installed at outpatient clinics and rehabilitation centres to benefit patients
who need therapy sessions. There is also a possibility that patients can
perform exercises in the comfort of their own homes,” said Yu. 

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